We humans are not the only ones affected by the pandemic. Zoo animals everywhere are suffering because of disruptions to their routine and a sudden lack of connection with people.

I’ve interviewed some of the employees at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) about the impact of the pandemic on their work, on the animals’ routine and on the financial situation of the Society.

The ZSL is a charity and has been working tirelessly for almost two centuries to preserve endangered animals and their habitats. They are now temporarily closed due to the pandemic.

Zookeepers’ work continues to be essential for the animals’ well-being

Tara Humphrey, a senior keeper there, told me that she and her colleagues still have a lot work to do. Even with the doors shut to the public, her demands at the zoo are essential for the animals, and have helped to maintain her mental health.

“Us keepers have remained focused on looking after the animals, so while we miss having visitors, as we love sharing our work and educating people about our animals, we’re lucky to have so many unique residents [the animals] to take our mind off the situation for a while. Looking after our animals keeps us grounded”, she explained.

Keeper Dan Simmonds with a hanuman langur (c) Will Amlott ZSL
Keeper Dan Simmonds with a hanuman langur
(c) Will Amlott ZSL

Dan Simmonds, the team leader of the primate area, said that workers are focused on helping the animals adapt to the new lifestyle. “As keepers, we all miss the visitors, but we’re making the most of the situation and using this time to spend even more time training and thinking up creative extra activities for the primates”, he said .

Their work routine is also different now. “The last half hour before we open is usually a hive of activity – zookeepers cleaning windows, the grounds team sweeping pathways, everyone making final preparations for our visitors, and now these activities are spread out throughout the day”.

Both keepers agree that the animals are sensitive to these changes. For instance, Simmonds explained that on normal days the gorillas can feel when it’s about time for the public to arrive.

“They’re always watching us very closely trying to figure out what’s going on. Many of our animals notice when no visitors are in”, he noted. 

Critically endangered

Among the most visitor-friendly species are the critically endangered Western lowland gorillas in ‘Gorilla Kingdom.’. Simmonds explained that these animals “particularly enjoy investigating people’s different clothes and hair styles”.

Jimmy, the Northern white-cheeked gibbon, is one resident who adores the attention. Simmonds explains that Jimmy loves it when people notice him during their daily hour of exercise and give him attention from a distance.

But even though he is missing his fans, the lockdown did not stop Jimmy from “showing off”. “Jimmy has been singing every morning, and with the city so quiet this hauntingly beautiful sound can be heard clear across Regent’s Park in London”, said Simmonds.

LZ Gibbon Jimmy (c) ZSL London Zoo
LZ Gibbon Jimmy
(c) ZSL London Zoo

Keeping loneliness and boredom at bay

The lock-down has affected each of the species in the zoo differently. Tara Humphrey explained that the animals have “very distinct personalities”. “Many of our Humboldt penguins will swim up to see our visitors at ‘Penguin Beach’, while our leafcutter ants hardly register that they’re there”.

Some of the Asian lions and the Sumatran tiger are receiving different treatment during this time, as the absence of people visiting the zoo could have a negative impact on them. Humphrey said that they would usually sniff the air when people passed by, and that now they lack those “different scents to explore”.

“Without our visitors, the big cats are pretty non-plussed”, she said. ZSL employees have provided giant scent balls for the ‘Land of Lions’ to distract and amuse the felines.

The gorillas are also receiving new gifts: “snowballs” made of nuts and seeds for them to play with and eat. Over at the mongoose enclosure, employees are encouraging the little carnivores’ natural skills with fun toys, such as rotting logs for them to break open in search of insects.

Natural skills

Simmonds says that before, the only time of year when the Zoo ever closed was Christmas day. Some of the animals would wait for visitors all day long, baffled by their absence.

However, he notes, even though right now is a difficult and unusual period, it does not mean that the animals’ wellbeing is compromised. Through their work, keepers can actively help to protect the animals from the emotional fallout.

“We just spend more time keeping them entertained by giving them fun and enriching activities to do, which is something we already did every day. So, it’s just a case of increasing them to make up for the absence of our visitors”, Simmonds explained.

A pygmy goat waits patiently for an ear scratch (c) ZSL
A pygmy goat waits patiently for an ear scratch
(c) ZSL

Even with all the keepers’ efforts to prevent the animals from suffering, the current decrease in the zoo’s income might lead to dangerous consequences. Since March, when they had to close down, the ZSL has been suffering from a severe shortage of funds. The charity, a national symbol for science and environmental conservation, is now in danger.

Even though its Director General, Dominic Jermey, has confirmed that the institution entered the current crisis free of any debt, they are still having a hard time financially, as are not generating any income at the moment. He urges people to donate so that the Zoological Society can keep functioning.

If you’d like to make a donation or learn more about this cause, please access: www.zsl.org/donate.

Related Topics